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The Divine Office at Night

Tuesday, June 11, 2024
Chapter 8

During the winter season, that is, from the first of November until Easter, it seems reasonable to arise at the eighth hour of the night. By sleeping until a little past the middle of the night, the community can arise with their food fully digested. In the time remaining after Vigils, those who need to learn some of the psalter or readings should study them.

Between Easter and the first of November mentioned above, the time for Vigils should be adjusted so that a very short interval after Vigils will give the members opportunity to care for nature's needs. Then, at daybreak, Lauds should follow immediately.

Among the Sayings of the Desert Monastics there is a story that may explain best Benedict's terse, clear instructions on prayer:

Once upon a time the disciples asked Abba Agathon, "Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?" Abba Agathon answered, "I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. What ever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath."

There are three dimensions of the treatment of prayer in the Rule of Benedict that deserve special attention. In the first place, it is presented immediately after the chapter on humility. In the second place, it is not a treatise on private prayer. In the third place, it is scriptural rather than personal. Prayer is, then, the natural response of people who know their place in the universe. It is not designed to be a psychological comfort zone though surely comfort it must. And lastly, it is an act of community and an act of awareness.

Prayer, as Abba Agathon implies, is hard and taxing and demanding work. It breaks us open to the designs of God for life. It brings great insights and it demands great responses. It is based on the psalms, the very prayers that formed Jesus himself. And, most of all, it is unceasing. Day and night, Benedict says, day and night we must present ourselves before the face of God and beg for the insight and the courage it will take to go the next step.

There are volumes written on the structure and the history of the Divine Office: psalms, scripture readings and prayers that are identified as the official prayer of the church. What is most noteworthy here is not so much the ordering of the parts of the Office which Benedict himself says in another place is not absolute but the demonstration of humanity that undergirds the place of the Divine Office in the life of the monastic. The way Benedict deals with prayer says a great deal about the place of prayer in the life of us all even fifteen centuries later.

At first reading, the prayer life of Benedict's communities seems to be inhumanly rigorous and totally incompatible with modern life, either religious or lay. The monks are "to arise at the eighth hour of the night," the Rule says and that is at least impossible for most people if not downright fanatical or destructive. It is important for a modern reader to realize, however, that the Roman night in a world without electric lights was computed from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am, from sundown to sunup. In this culture, in other words, the monks went naturally to bed at about 6:00 pm. To wake at the eighth hour, then, was to wake at about 2:00 am, after eight full hours of sleep and the natural restoration of the body, to use the remaining hours before the beginning of the workday in prayer and study. The difference between us and the early monastic communities is that we extend our days at the end of them. We go to bed hours after sundown. They extended their days at the beginning of them; they got up hours before sunrise. The only question, given the fact that we both extend the workday hours, is what we do with the time. We stay up and watch television or go to parties or prolong our office hours. We fill our lives with the mundane. They got up to pray and to study the scriptures. They filled their souls with the sacred.